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My experience of London Gatwick Airport: What to expect on arrival
7 min read
Updated on May 14, 2024

Flying into London Gatwick soon? Here’s what to expect, according to Pam Samasuwo-Nyawiri, a seasoned travel reporter originally from Zimbabwe who now lives in Canada. She spends most of her time globe-trotting while working on various projects with artisan communities in Africa and South America.

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Landing in London on a sunny day

First impressions: When you land

I have fond memories of London Gatwick Airport. As a young adult, from my first time traveling to the United Kingdom (UK) from a ‘sleepy’ country in Africa, this airport was the place that gave me the first insight into British slang: ‘hiya!!’ #britishaccent.

What’s London Gatwick like?

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There are plenty of shops and facilities at Gatwick Airport

I’ve never forgotten the welcoming spirit – contrary to reports that it is one of the most ‘unfriendliest’ airports in the world. Intimidating, maybe, but the perspective of an ‘unwelcoming environment’ is always subject to individual experience.

London Gatwick Airport (LGW) is located in South London and is among the world’s busiest single-runway airports. It serves more than 200 destinations and over 90 countries.

It’s always been my choice of airport in and out of London, as it serves many budget airlines with much cheaper flight tickets than Heathrow Airport for the same destinations.

If you’re impatient and busy spaces give you anxiety, then you might want to keep reading for some tips a little later on. London Gatwick, no matter which terminal is always bustling and can be overwhelming to navigate.

Passport control at Gatwick Airport

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Gatwick Passport control has clear signs where to queue

I have to admit that I’m always a nervous wreck getting to any airport. Perhaps I watch too many ‘border security' documentaries! But I always have all my documents ready and check through them several times – just to be sure. When I arrived at Gatwick passport control, I kept the following on hand:

  • My passport, open to the photo page

  • Proof of my accommodation in the United Kingdom

  • My travel document (I have an X visa)

Unless you’re arriving from Ireland or Northern Ireland, everyone landing at Gatwick Airport has to go through passport control, which can mean short or longer periods of waiting time. London Gatwick has two separate queues: one for the European Union (EU), European Economic Area (EEA), British nationals, and Swiss nationals, while the other is for all other nationalities.

Depending on the arrival gate, leave about a 10 to 15-minute walk to passport control. The eGate queues are shorter, so you can just breeze through, so if you have a biometric passport it’s recommended that you use those. However, if you don’t have a biometric passport or you have to go to the ‘all other passports’ queue, it may take a bit longer.

Take about 5 to 20 minutes to wait for luggage, and expect a little more time if the gate of arrival is further out.

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There are signs throughout Gatwick airport

Dos and don’ts when arriving at Gatwick Airport

  • Don’t wait until the last minute to get your documents in order: I’ve seen so many people get to an immigration officer and start fumbling with their bags to get their documents out, increasing anxiety and getting flustered.

  • Do make use of the facilities before passport control: Some gates at Gatwick can be a 20-minute walk to passport control, so make use of the toilet facilities along the corridors if you’ve just disembarked from a long flight.

  • Do leave plenty of time for pickups: If you’re being picked up by someone, I would allow about an hour or more for landing to leave the airport. I’ve been caught out waiting for two hours to get through immigration, customs, and baggage claim.

  • Don’t plan to arrive at peak times: For overnight flights, depending on where you are flying from, avoid booking flights that arrive at Gatwick between 6am and 8am. These are high-traffic zone times, when most of the major airlines are landing, and the number of people can sometimes be overwhelming. Flights coming in after 9am usually move quicker.

Baggage claim at Gatwick Airport

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Gatwick baggage claim in an unusually quiet moment

I’ve never waited more than 10 minutes for luggage at London Gatwick Airport, and on this leg of travel, it was efficient – in and out. Saying that, there is really no time set in stone from when a flight lands to the time the baggage reclaim is ready.

I spoke to a Gatwick employee who confirmed that 45 minutes is the most time you can expect to wait, and anything after that would normally be reported.

Try to have a £1 coin ready if you need a luggage trolley. London Gatwick Airport trolleys have a slot for a pound, and you cannot use a trolley without this. If you are stuck and have other currency on you, head to your nearest Bureau de Change, which London Gatwick Terminal 3 has two of them in baggage reclaim. However, you will be charged a premium for changing money at the airport.

What to expect at arrivals

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You’ll be able to buy food and drink after you exit customs and baggage claim

There are plenty of shops when you exit customs. You can buy food and drinks, and there’s even a small Duty-Free shop before you enter the arrival hall (for last-minute goodies). There’s also free Wi-Fi available throughout the airport, so you’ll have no worries about immediately buying a new SIM card or paying expensive roaming charges.

There are also plenty of toilet facilities and signs everywhere to help you find your way.

Tips for your onward journey via bus

If you’re catching any of the national bus services, and you’ve pre-booked your ticket i.e., National Express, please make sure that you’re not making a booking for a fixed time without any allowances to change the ticket.

There’s a feature on the National Express website where you pay an extra £5, which allows you to get onto any bus service if you miss your original booking – as long as the service isn’t fully booked. You just turn up and show the driver, and they will quickly recognize the code and allow you onto any time bus.

Tips for your onward journey via train

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The trains are regular and will typically take you into central London. There are plenty of helpful staff available if you have any questions

The train station at Gatwick is clearly signposted and has regular trains running all day and into the night. The train station is in Gatwick’s South Terminal, just a 5-minute walk from both departures and arrivals. ​It​’s easily accessible from the North Terminal as there’s a​ free shuttle​ service between both terminals. Handy if you’ve accidentally ended up at the wrong terminal.

It’s also worth noting that Gatwick Airport offers the Gatwick Express which takes 30 minutes to get to London Victoria in central London. From there, you can access the famous London Underground (metro) - lovingly dubbed ‘the tube’ - across the capital.

Getting picked up at Gatwick Airport

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It can be confusing getting picked up at Gatwick – head to the Short Stay car park

It’s really tricky to get an Uber from Gatwick. Some airports have clearly posted signs to Uber pickup points, but at the time of writing, Gatwick was not one of them. Often Uber drivers cancel at the last minute or simply can’t find you in the maze of car parks.

The famous black cabs are readily available but are expensive and metered, so depending on how far you’re going, it could be costly. Remember, it’s at least an hour’s drive to central London, which is longer if there’s traffic.

However, if you have friends or family picking you up, they should use the postcodes that Gatwick Airport recommends for the specific terminals.

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The airport is well signposted from the motorway/freeway

Follow the signs to the Short Stay pick-up areas. However, the Gatwick Airport site itself calls out that the accuracy of navigation systems is variable, so always keep an eye on road signs too.

I’ve found it helpful to let my taxi or friend track the plane on the Gatwick Airport app, which is a great tool and helps relieve a lot of stress. They must have your inbound airline details, to begin with, or text them as soon as your flight is on the ground.

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